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Little risk, major reward? Nashville Predators thrilled to see Radulov back

Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov (47), of Russia, stretches with teammates during NHL hockey practice on Wednesday, March 21, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. Radulov has rejoined the Predators, the team that drafted him in 2004, after leaving in 2008 to play in Russia.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov (47), of Russia, stretches with teammates during NHL hockey practice on Wednesday, March 21, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. Radulov has rejoined the Predators, the team that drafted him in 2004, after leaving in 2008 to play in Russia.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Two paycheques. A little more than US$90,000 in salary.

That's the total financial commitment the Nashville Predators are on the hook for after adding Alexander Radulov for the final 17 days of the regular season and what the franchise hopes is a long playoff run.

In the sports world, that amounts to essentially zero risk. And it could come with serious reward if Radulov lives up to his billing as the best player outside the NHL.

"Whenever there's been a big game, a big situation, a big stage, Alex has always seemed to shine," Predators general manager David Poile said Wednesday.

The Radulov soap opera came to an end late Tuesday when Poile picked the Russian up from the Nashville airport. He went through his first practice with the Preds in four years the following morning and could play Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

The risk, if there's any, comes with adding a dynamic scorer to a team that has been among the best in the Western Conference all season.

Poile isn't overly concerned about chemistry issues because Radulov has maintained friendships with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter—players who became leaders in the dressing room since he bolted for the newly formed KHL in 2008. The GM also consulted with Weber before putting the wheels in motion on Radulov's return.

In fact, it seems like all involved have been preparing for this day for some time. At the 2009 IIHF World Hockey Championship, Weber and Predators coach Barry Trotz—who served as an assistant for the Canadian team—had a lengthy chat with Radulov under the unique transparent roof at PostFinance Arena in Bern, Switzerland.

Days later, Radulov scored the winning goal as Russia beat Canada 2-1 in the gold-medal game, angering his opponents with an exuberant celebration.

"That's Radulov, he does that all the time," Canadian captain Shane Doan said afterwards.

The circumstances surrounding Radulov's return to the NHL have also raised a few eyebrows, particularly among participants at last week's GMs meetings in Florida, where it was announced he would be allowed to come back without having to clear waivers.

Some of Nashville's main rivals privately groused about that decision. But they haven't raised any issues with Poile, one of the league's longest-serving and most-respected GMs.

"Not one of them has talked to me about it," he said. "I've read a lot about it and again, I think we're all very competitive and I certainly understand where they're coming from but nobody's ever talked to me about it."

And, really, what else were the Predators to do?

Radulov went AWOL on the team after scoring 26 goals in his second NHL season. That was a significant loss for the franchise. With Nashville now on the cusp of contending for a Stanley Cup and Radulov anxious to burn the final season of his entry-level NHL contract, everything came together nicely.

There are few guarantees he'll remain with Nashville next season. The 25-year-old is due to become a restricted free agent on July 1 and will have plenty of incentive to return to Russia, particularly if the start of the NHL season is disrupted by a work stoppage.

"Alexander Radulov has as many options, if not more options, than anybody," said Poile. "He can sign with us, he can be a restricted Group 2 free agent, he can go back and sign in the KHL. I guess you call that leverage."

In the meantime, the Predators are wielding some leverage of their own.

After watching his team win the first playoff series in franchise history last spring, Poile has essentially pushed all of his chips across the table and gone all in. The GM is trying to send a message to his franchise players (Suter and Weber are both free agents), his fanbase and the rest of the league.

If all goes well, Radulov's return will probably amount to more than a couple weeks and a couple paycheques. But there are no guarantees.

"It is certainly our hope that this relationship lasts longer than the last nine games and the playoffs," said Poile. "We've had that conversation, but to me there's no timetable no pressure. If this is the right fit, that's great.

"Then we will live happily ever after for more years."

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